Hotels are ideally placed to accommodate farce but the setting lends itself also to more contemplative purposes. The provisional nature of the hotel was put to its most haunting use in Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad, in which every element from memory to topography was thrown into doubt. Youth (15), with its single, luxurious location – an exclusive Swiss hotel and spa resort in the shadow of the Alps – and its characters adrift in foggy reminiscence, suggests a grandiloquent take on the same material for viewers who have no truck with the enigmatic.
Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is an elderly composer and conductor who has been frequenting the hotel for 20 years. He is joined by his film-maker friend Mick (Harvey Keitel), who is toiling over a screenplay that he loftily considers his “testament”. And there is Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), who has a bone to pick with him about his emotional absence during her childhood.
Fred is also being pressured by Buckingham Palace to come out of retirement to conduct one of his best-loved pieces for the Queen, while a French publisher is pestering him to write his memoirs. Chances are he’s going to be doing a lot of raking over the past. At least he is receiving massages in bucolic surroundings, not eating Meals on Wheels in an unheated semi. That wouldn’t be the director Paolo Sorrentino’s style. As a visual artist, he is in a class of his own: business class. It is sometimes said of beautiful cinematography that each shot could be hung on the wall. That’s not quite true of Youth. Most of the images here would work as double-page spreads in a lifestyle magazine.
The problem isn’t that Sorrentino is preoccupied exclusively with the angst of the rich and famous. La Dolce Vita showed that universal anxieties can be found in the most rarefied strata; so did Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. It is more the banality with which he explores the weight of history on the present and future. Fred isn’t the only one atoning for past sins. A fellow guest is Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), a movie star mulling over his next role and trying to escape associations with a hit blockbuster. When approached by fans, he wrongly infers that they are superficial. Jimmy will have to realise that he, not his admirers, is limiting his potential. Some hotels leave a mint on your pillow. With this one, it’s life lessons.
Lena has troubles aside from her daddy issues. She has just been dumped by her husband – Mick’s son – in favour of someone Mick describes as a “whore”. “I’m Paloma Faith,” declares the woman in question. “And I’m not a whore. I’m a singer.” Keitel’s default expression has always been one of mild confusion, but here he looks more than usually stumped by how best to react to this pop-star cameo. As well he might. Sorrentino cultivates an atmosphere of oddball whimsy that feels assured in films in his native Italian (such as The Great Beauty) but his English-language work (including This Must Be the Place, with Sean Penn as a fey rock star) is as stilted as a joke translated between several languages and delivered from the bottom of a well.
It is clear that he finds his film amusing. He specialises in deadpan framing, in which a scene is rendered off-kilter by composition alone. He uses as visual punctuation shots of the guests waddling together like penguins, or gazing sadly through the mist of the sauna. He holds the camera steady long enough to suggest that he knows something we don’t. It would be nice if occasionally he let us in on the gag. This fits with the air of implied profundity: characters converse in poised would-be epigrams (“Men, animals, plants – we’re all just extras”) which are never as smart as the emphasis given to them would suggest.
Sorrentino has enough standing to attract stars of the calibre of Caine, Keitel and even Jane Fonda, whose turn as a splenetic movie icon was worth her coming out of semi-retirement for. Each of these performers is engaged with the material. It’s just that its messages (age brings wisdom, it’s never too late to change, no one is ready for parenthood) are rather beneath them. All that effort is wasted on Youth.
This article appears in the 27 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?